Trying to explain what música ranchera is to non-Mexicans reminds me of the apocryphal quote attributed to–take your pick–Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, when someone asked what jazz is. Ranchera isn't so much a genre as it is a sentido–a way of life, of viewing the world in all its melancholy, grandiose beauty.
It's no surprise, then, that ranchera is considered the quintessential Mexican music genre in a land with a dizzying variety of music. Ranchera embodies everything that Mexicans think of themselves when at their best–macho, romantic, backed by mariachi, dressed in splendid outfits, and stubbornly stuck in a myth of a bucolic Mexico that never truly existed. There is no corollary for it in American song–it ain't country music, it ain't Tin Pan Alley, it ain't even Western swing. It's ranchera, damnit, and here's a listicle for ustedes who don't habla to learn of the titans and for wabs to debate forever.
Criteria for this list: not just vocal ability, but whether you wrote your own songs, whether you were a pioneer or followed in the footsteps of titans, and my own biases (which will become apparent soon). One procedural note: I limited this list to artists who primarily sang rancheras throughout their career. I didn't include people who excelled at the genre, like Juan Gabriel, because I'm saving them for another list. Go ahead and hate–this is my list haha.
And now…música, maestro!
20. Tito Guizar
Guizar essentially created the ranchera genre, both in music and film, with his 1936 effort Allá en el Rancho Grande. This film set the template for all future ranchera singers: pastoral themes, elongated notes, dashing looks, lightning-quick changes between baritone and falsettos and the charro costume that's now so iconic that even hipsters like Mariachi the Bronx use it. Guizar actually had a diverse musical career, but Mexicans will always associate him with “Allá en el Rancho Grande,” if only because he was able to sneak in the word calzones (“underwear” in habla), thereby making generations of Mexis giggle.
19. Alejandro Fernández
The son of ranchera icon Vicente Fernández (who'll be in part dos of this list), Alejandro represents a dying breed: the ranchera singer. Because while the genre is still beloved in Mexico, few singers nowadays devote themselves to the craft; in Alejandro's case, it's his heritage, so he's never delved into other genres or collaborations that cheapen the genre. Put this low on the list only because he's a young pup compared to the other legends here, Fernández took the best of his father's voice but with half of the bragadoccio, all of the machismo, and a bigger helping of the wussiness, making him this generation's ultimate chonis collector.
18. Amalia Mendoza
With a voice smokier than a smudge pot, Mendoza made her mark singing the songs of Mexico's greatest composers–José Alfredo Jiménez, Cuco Sánchez, Chucho Monge, and others. I personally find her crying vocals a bit overwrought, but she was one of the three great female Mexican singers in the ranchera genre along with…well, you'll meet them soon enough.
17. Juan/David Záizar
Los Hermanos Záizar was a popular group during the 1960s and 1970s, but they were also the rarity: the brothers duo that found success with solo careers as well, specifically in ranchera. David made his mark by writing many of his own songs, songs that many ranchera greats went on to cover; Juan sang at my cousin Angie's quinceañera. Good times!
16. Lucha Villa
The second of the three woman who defined the ranchera genre, Villa had a strong, ball-busting vox As her career spanned from the 1960s into the 1980s, her repertoire also pushed ranchera into more modernistic directions, as the above song shows.
15. Francisco “El Charro” Avitia
If Vicente Fernández is the Zeus of Mexican machismo, then Avitia is its Cronos, the ur-macho, a man who sweated testosterone and never had a wuss chromosome–for the Howard Stern fans out there, he was the Ronnie Mund of ranchera, sans the assholery. He specialized in corridos, in manly tales of Revolution, murder, bravado, and mayhem, and his singing style was the tonal equivalent of a throwdown. Only dads and tíos can truly appreciate Avitia, so it's no wonder that the only time you hear his music in the present day is on KHJ-AM La Ranchera 930.
14. Chavela Vargas
Very few Mexican singers get noticed by the American media, let alone the New York Times, let alone get a full obituary in the New York Times Magazine's annual issue devoted to the lives of extraordinary people, yet Vargas got that late last year–written by Sandra Cisneros, no less. She was a favorite of the Mexican intelligentsia and Spanish director Pedro Aldomovar (who frequently used her tortured take on songs for his films) for her delightful gender-fucking, for her seductions of virtually all Mexican female icons, for singing long enough that she could collaborate with José Alfredo Jiménez, Juan Gabriel, AND Pink Martini, and for featuring a singing style that sounded like the happiest dirge in history. Not bad for a Costa Rican, right? She was never a favorite of mine, though, and I think it's because of her hipster status–why can't the intelligentsia love her more-talented contemporaries as well? Lila Downs before Lila Downs.
13. Rocio Dúrcal
Another foreigner–this time a Spaniard–who conquered the world of ranchera, Dúrcal also made many great pop records. So why her inclusion here? For her longtime collaboration with Mexican music icon Juan Gabriel. In a series of albums from the 1970s through the 1980s in which she covered his songs, Dúrcal redefined what ranchera was by singing Gabriel's many excellent songs backed by mariachi, most famous of which is “Amor Eterno,” written by Gabriel to commemorate his mother's death. What's amazing is such a seemingly saccharine song became a standard of all mariachis, of all ranchera singers, and while Gabriel's version is extraordinary, Dúrcal's take remains the standard. Heroine to mothers everywhere.
12. Pepe Aguilar
The second son of a legend to appear on this list following his eternal rival Alejandro Fernández, my parents remember seeing Pepe as a child at the Anaheim Convention Center in the 1980s as part of his legendary father Antonio's show, ready to do a solo…and he cried in front of everyone. Pepe would recover wonderfully from that episode, going on to define the ranchera genre during the 1990s to the present day, writing some of his own songs, paying homage to the classics, producing, throwing fundraisers, and even releasing his own sneaker line. A fine guitarist in his own right, he even did a bit of rock en español in his early days–thank God he stuck to the rancheras. And almost forgot: he's from Zacatecas, which is the golden ticket to greatness in this world.
11. Lucha Reyes
If only dads and uncles can truly appreciate Francisco “El Charro” Avitia, only abuelitas and tías can fully appreciate–or even remember–Reyes, a pioneer in pushing gender roles in Mexico during the 1930s. Here was a performer who drank in public, a woman who dared sing backed by mariachi, who dared sing ranchera. You can feel the urgency in her voice, all passion and joie de vivre, that so many ranchera singers–male and female–would try to emulate but never match. Reyes also was a pioneer in a different, more unfortunate way: she died far too young, setting a pattern too many Mexican singers would follow in the ensuing decades.
10. Miguel Aceves Mejia
Mejia is best remembered in Mexican society for two features: an awesome streak of grey in his otherwise-black helmet of hair as he got older, and the greatest falsetto in male history, one that allowed him to let the huapango and son huasteca genre truly shine in ranchera music. His interpretation of “La Malagueña” remains the standard by which all men desperately try to reach. Even more importantly? He was the man who discovered José Alfredo Jiménez, whom we'll meet in a bit…
9. Vicente Fernández
Okay, Jalisco cabrones and all of ustedes who have fallen victim to the tapatio myth: howl at this injustice. HOWL, damn you! Why is Chente so low? How dare I relegate El Rey Chente to so low on the list? But refry this: Chente does not belong in the top five on virtue of the status of the folks who occupy those spots. In terms of projecting Mexican pride and Jaliscan chest-thumping, he can't hold a tequila bottle to Jorge Negrete. And while Chente wrote some of his music, he doesn't compare to the other singer-songwriters on the list. So nothing against Chente–I won't even hold the fact that he's from Jalisco against him this time–but there was simply more talented people than him ahead in the list. Think of him as the Chris Mullen of ranchera–HA!
8. Cuco Sánchez
He was a fabulous singer in his own right, a chubby, vulnerable guy before Juan Gabriel made the archetype his and his alone, and was one of the finest interpreter of the songs of songwriter Chucho Monge (“Pa' Que Me Sirve la Vida”) and Agustín Lara (“Imposible”). More importantly, Sánchez was a fabulous composer; his most famous songs–“El Mil Amores,” “Grítenme Piedras del Campo,” “No Soy Monedita de Oro”–are standards in the Mexican canon covered by many. And, as I wrote so long ago, his “Cama de Piedra” was “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” decades before Morrissey ever encountered his first gladiola. Criminally underappreciated, but not as much as…
7. Luis Perez Meza
“El Trovador del Campo” is the most-underrated ranchera star of them all, one whose booming voice is largely remembered nowadays only by the older generation but whose compositions became standards in another genre–banda sinaloense. Roll call! “El Sauce y La Palma,” “El Niño Perdido,” “El Barzón,” “Las Isabeles,” “El Toro Palomo,” “Cuando Salgo a Los Campos”–all his songs, all first interpreted in the soft tones of ranchera, all immortalized in banda. Besides Antonio Aguilar, the only singer who truly excelled at both.
6. Lola Beltrán
The most famous female Mexican singer of them all and one of the best, period, “Lola la Grande” was probably most famous for not changing the gender pronouns in her interpretations of songs. So when she sang “El Rey,” Beltrán sang with such conviction that all believed she truly was the king of the world. A stunner while young, a grand dame in the autumn of her years, and a voice that could blast through steel, every female ranchera singer takes her cues from Beltrán and never quite reaches there. The above song proved so powerful that Brazilian legend Caetano Veloso recorded a memorable version in its honor.
5. Jorge Negrete
“El Charro Cantor” was Mexico's first ranchera superstar, a dashing man with an opera-trained voice who was also a fabulous actor. Unfortunately, his star has dimmed over the years, his films rarely screened, his songs usually forgotten save for “México Lindo y Querido,” but such was Negrete's influence that his legacy still reverberates every time a man puts on a charro outfit. Died far too young at 41, of a hepatitis C infection–so they say…
4. Pedro Infante
The biggest ranchera star of them all, Infante took off where his good friend Jorge Negrete left off and dominated film and song in a way no artist in the United States or Mexico ever has before, during, and since his career. His hits are too numerous to mention, so what I'll point out here is the multiple genres that he popularized–the bolero, the comedy song, the drunk song (two separate genres, mind you), the weeping song, and many more. Only Javier Solís could pull off a charro costume AND a tuxedo as comfortably as Infante. Infante's talent was such that he could take a Beny Moré classic like “Parece Que Va Llover” and turn it into something all his own. So why is he so relatively low at #4? Because he could only otherwise occupy the number three slot, and that goes to…
3. Antonio Aguilar
Pound-for-pound, the Zacatecan native was the best ranchera star of them all, if you take every possible factor into consideration. He wrote a couple of songs and served as his own producer, but made his mark singing all the genres of the central Mexican countryside, doing even sub-genres within genres (in the corrido front alone, he recorded albums dedicated to corridos about the Mexican revolution, anti-heroes, and even horses). He popularized the tamborazo genre of his home state, recorded with conjunto norteños, bandas and even did a couple of cumbia albums, all with a soft, commanding voice that wrapped itself around words like a good, well-worn poncho. Only Pedro Infante and El Piporro sang better comedy songs than Aguilar, and no one had a better live show than Aguilar, his horses, and his entire family (for decades, he would annually swing by the Anaheim Convention Center).
Even more important for me and millions of his fans, though, was Aguilar's lifestyle. He was the macho at his finest–not some womanizing pendejo, but a devout father and husband who emphasized family love, who emphasized clean living (get borracho, but responsibly) and who by all accounts was the humblest superstar Mexico ever produced. A Los Angeles Times obituary once noted that his family flew coach into San Jose and waited for their luggage like everyone else, being recognized only by the Mexican workers who marveled at how their idol could live just like them. A worthy idol in every sense of the definition–and my favorite ranchera singer of all time. Not the greatest, though.
2. José Alfredo Jiménez
Jiménez is the undisputed king of the genre–fitting since he did write “El Rey.” Almost every artist on this list owe their careers to the songs written by Jiménez, whose hit parade makes the collected works of Gershwin, Porter, Leiber-Stoller, the Brill Building AND Woody Guthrie seem as voluminous as the output of Paper Lace. Even better, he sang all of his compositions. Sure, he didn't have the greatest of voices–Jiménez was the first to admit this–but no one sang songs with more conviction, more vulnerability, more ego, because he was singing his life. The position of everyone else on this list is debatable, but Jiménez always deserves the top or second slot.
But who gets the first one in this iteration? If you're a Mexican and haven't figured this one out yet, give me back your nopal. It's obviously…
1. Javier Solís
Solís is the greatest what-if in Mexican music. He died tragically young at age 35, after barely a decade in the industry and just as he was truly proving himself a worthy heir to the legacy of Pedro Infante. He was always adventurous with his arrangements, bringing in organs, double-tracking (the haunting laughs of “Payaso”) and other instrumentation alongside the traditional mariachi of ranchera. He just didn't sing about the Mexican countryside–Solís' Fantasia Española, an album of covers of songs by the legendary Agustín Lara, is one of the most romantic collection of songs you'll ever hear, but a forgotten gem in the Solís canon. And take the above song–only a titan of talent like Solís could make a song about a Puerto Rican immigrant looking back on his life make it not only a wholly Mexican song, but a universal lament for the homeland of ones' youth (if you want to make an awkward comparison, let's call it the “It Was a Very Good Year” of Mexican song–even I cringed at that). And check this out: IT'S NOT EVEN HIS BEST SONG.
And that voice! No voice in ranchera was more powerful yet more suave–where Chente shouted, Solís crooned with the same power, with more finesse. His nickname was “El Rey del Bolero Ranchero,” but the man beats everyone in this list. And who knows what would've happened if he lived even five more years?